I visited China twice. The first time was in 1997, in the aftermath of the so-called Asian Financial Crisis and the first nuclear experiments of India and Pakistan. Both events had rattled the world, which is why the honorable Al-Ahram Editorial Board at the time arranged a trip for the press to East and Southeast Asia to explore what was happening in the region. The visit took us to Pakistan, India, Singapore, Indonesia, and lastly, China.
The second time was in 2002, a few months after the US invasion of Afghanistan. There was an assumption that the presence of US forces nearby would be a concern in Beijing, but that was not the case. On the contrary, there was not only acceptance, but also a fair share of welcoming reception. There was an impression that it’s alright if the US can lift the burden of terrorism off of China’s shoulders. Having US forces in China’s neighborhood seemed to have an appeal for Chinese power, which was far away from US territory at the time.
The impression I had in my first visit was that China had yet to emerge from its Third World shell. I drew parallels between Beijing and 1974 Cairo. But my second visit, which included Beijing, Shanghai, and other cities in the southeast, left me with the impression that China was on the cusp of greatness. The whole country was one big workshop. I remember counting 26 cranes within a distance of no more than 1 kilometer. Ever since, I always kept abreast of China’s news.
Last week, I wrote an article in this vein entitled The race between democracy and authoritarianism. At its core, this piece was a critical analysis of America’s rhetoric vis-à-vis China as it prepared for its Summit for Democracy. I did not imagine, at the time, that China would care much for engaging in an “ideological” battle with the US. I assumed that the Chinese reaction would go no further than the usual rejection of interference in the internal affairs of states.
But China did have a rabbit to pull out of the hat, and one that did not reference the Red Book, a favorite staple among Mao Zedong aficionados during the Cultural Revolution era. Instead, the Chinese hat-trick was an intellectual and theoretical initiative that could be the prelude to a global debate on which political system is the most effective and efficient in running people’s affairs. For the first time, to our knowledge, China is ready to issue an ideological framework document for the Chinese state and present this roadmap to success and excellence to the world.
On 4 December, Global Times, an English-language Chinese newspaper under the People's Daily, reported that China's State Council Information Office released a white paper titled "China: Democracy That Works." The paper is split into five sections: Whole-Process People’s Democracy Under CPC Leadership, A Sound Institutional Framework, Concrete and Pragmatic Practices, Democracy That Works, and A New Model of Democracy.
In turn, these general headlines are split into two main veins: the first is a critical take on the Western political and economic democracy system, represented best by the US; while the second presents a glorious defense of the Chinese political and economic counteroffer, coupled with a comparison of outcomes and results. The white book refrains from restating the traditional Marxist affirmations on the distribution of surplus value or class struggle. Instead, it builds from a common reference idea that stems from the notion of democracy itself. From China’s standpoint, the concept of democracy must be understood in the context of the special circumstances of each state on the one hand, and effectiveness in meeting people’s needs, which lies at the heart of this concept, on the other hand.
This Chinese beginning is painful in that it is reminiscent of the early stages of the US political system. Yet, in being so, it does not exhume the gloomy memories of days long gone, but rather affirms the idea that different circumstances and environments generate different political systems tailored for each particular case. This applies even within the US itself.
The white paper notes that in its beginnings, US-style democracy lent itself to slave owners and a social elite minority, before gradually expanding to the One Person, One Vote concept. Still, though social interest was divided and polarized, regular citizens were still unable to use their votes as a tool to protect their actual interests. For them, the government is no more than a concept of everyday life. Members of the Congress and Senate are quarrel-obsessed attention-seekers. The federal government can completely ignore the criticism of the media, or even berate it (in reference to former President Donald Trump who frequently scolded the media). As a result, regardless of what the media says, it has no influence.
The white paper highlights some strengths of Western democracies, such as the rule of law and the role of the judiciary, but it also offers a deep critique of the US experience, which lacks efficiency after two centuries of over-consumption and cannot provide a motive to resolve even the key problems in the US, where the system almost becomes an empty framework whenever elections approach.
Elections have become the only trait of US democracy and winning them has become the ultimate goal of political parties and politicians. While the American society slowly disintegrates, resolving problems has increasingly become uneconomic. A “smarter” way is to pretend to resolve issues then cast the blame on political rivals and their inability to resolve problems and deception of the electorate. “Politicians only value the American people as voters, but as soon as any election is over, voters' supervision of the winner proves impossible.”
At the core of China’s critique of the US experience is an affirmation of the role of effectiveness and delivery. When dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed over 700,000 people in the US, the federal government needed not take the blame. Instead, the President could shirk his responsibility vis-à-vis regular unvaccinated or unmasked people.
In contrast, China’s “Whole-Process People’s Democracy” put the government in a position that allows it to exert its best efforts to achieve the highest level of welfare possible to its people. “Our democracy was designed to solve the problems of the real world, starting with poverty and air pollution and not ending with curbing the spread of the pandemic and reducing energy shortages.”
China was the first country to plunge into the abyss of the pandemic, but it was also the first to emerge from it, and it did so by organizing a structure for dealing with the pandemic and producing vaccines and medications. In any case, it is safe to say that the US-Chinese debate has begun!
This article was originally published in, and translated from, pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.